The United States Treasury Department this week imposed sanctions on the Chinese company Union Development Group (UDG), which since 2008 has been building a $3.8 billion tourism project in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, alleged to be a front for a future Chinese military installation. As such, the rumor mill in Cambodia is back up and running, at a difficult moment for Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Rumors that China was trying to station its troops somewhere in Cambodia bristled the Phnom Penh grapevine for much of 2018, thanks in part to reports by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington-based research group. By November that year, I had sources confirm that things were moving ahead at the UDG site, where satellite images showed the construction of a 3.4 kilometer runway, much longer than was needed for a mere tourism site, and according to some analysts, similar to runways built for the Chinese military elsewhere. I also heard that Washington was planning on saying something about the matter. On November 14, 2018, my Asia Times editor Shawn Crispin telephoned to say that according to his own sources, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had penned a letter to Hun Sen regarding the issue, something I was also hearing. It seemed likely this message would be relayed at a regional summit in Singapore set to take place that weekend. The next few hours saw a flurry of calls and emails, and after a sleepless night, our co-written article was published.